Pomona College’s Geology Department and Environmental Analysis Program were awarded a $922,816 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to establish an isotope instrument laboratory to enable research and teaching on the rate and nature of environmental change. The laboratory will be the first of its kind at The Claremont Colleges. The grant supports the purchase of a laser-ablation inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICPMS) and an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (IRMS). The mass spectrometers will allow students and faculty to examine many of the fundamental biogeochemical cycles that provide records of environments of the past. By allowing analysis of biological response to such changes, the new instruments will provide evidence of how living things have reacted to climate change in the past.

“The College has never had the ability to analyze these key isotopes in any of the natural science departments,’’ says Associate Professor of Geology Jade Star Lackey. “Typically, we have to send out material to laboratories and the analysis may take months and students don’t get the experience of doing the analysis themselves, much less repeat experiments.”

The lab will support classroom learning and student research. It will be critical for students interested in the emerging field of geobiology, those interested in bursts of evolution and extinction in the history of animal life, as well as those interested in resolving patterns of climate change in the recent past, prior to the effects of industrialization.

Professors Lackey, Marc Los Huertos and Robert Gaines, principal investigators on the grant, plan to use the new isotope lab to analyze a wide range of isotopes in a broad variety of materials including minerals, biological materials, soil, water and air. For example, Lackey’s lab group is studying how magmatism caused unusually large releases of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere during the Mesozoic Era. The isotope lab will allow his lab group to analyze stable oxygen and carbon isotopes of carbonate rocks, and to evaluate how rates of decarbonation varied during construction of the Sierra Nevada between 150 and 85 million years ago. Los Huertos will use the instrument in environmental analysis courses to teach students about the fate and transport of inorganic pollutants and how pollutants differentially impact various populations. In introductory geology classes, students will be able to think about how their diets are reflected in the carbon and nitrogen isotope composition of a strand of hair, or they may analyze bottled drinking water from different locations to identify the oceanic source and weather systems that bring water to these different locations as precipitation.

The isotope lab will be of interest not only to STEM scientists, but to scholars across the disciplines. For example, anthropologists will be able to determine the provenance of clays used in Native American artifacts, and scholars working on social justice issues related to air pollution might be able to determine whether lead is anthropogenic or not.

The new isotope instrument lab will provide new analytical capabilities across the College and The Claremont Colleges. Students will be able to do research and work with sophisticated instrumentation that is normally only available at research universities, in the process learning research techniques and gaining familiarity with complex instrumentation, acquiring skills that will be an asset throughout their academic careers.

“Not only will these students produce new data, but they will gain practical experience in all that goes into operating advanced instrumentation, preparing samples, standardization and quality control of data, etc.,” says Gaines. “Usually, these kinds of instruments are only available at large universities that have the infrastructure and user base to sustain their operation.”

It is anticipated that the lab will start operations by spring 2017 and will be fully operational in the summer of 2017, in time for the start of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP)

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, patient care improvements and preservation of the special character of the Bay Area. Visit moore.org and follow @MooreFound.